Black Box Kitchens, Dark Kitchens, Ghost Kitchens, or Zombie Kitchens.  Terms like these may sound scary, like the stuff of nightmares.  But these terms are used to describe an emerging food service industry concept known as “virtual restaurants.”

Very simply, virtual restaurants are kitchen-only restaurants.  With the rise of online and mobile app food delivery services, such as GrubHub, Uber Eats, Favor and DoorDash, traditional “brick-and-mortar” restaurants are turning more often to virtual restaurants to keep up with their customers’ preferences and demands.  There are no in-restaurant ordering or dining facilities:  no registers, no servers, no money, no tables or chairs.  Virtual restaurants are commercial kitchens purely for processing, preparing and fulfilling food orders.

Virtual kitchens can take many forms.  An independent restaurateur can operate one or more virtual restaurants preparing food based on one menu.  Alternatively, a group of independent restaurateurs or a single corporation of several different restaurant brands can share operation of one or more virtual restaurants preparing food based on multiple menus.  The latter allows for shared employees and joint purchasing or use of common infrastructure (food preparation, cooking, refrigeration or dish washing equipment), ingredients, goods and materials.  Sharing employees, facilities and purchasing helps reduce start up and operating costs and allows restaurants to be more flexible and innovative in their menus to better serve customers.  Further, multiple virtual restaurants can be operated as a hub and spoke, with one central virtual restaurant location operating as an initial preparation site for delivery and final preparation at other virtual restaurant locations.

Frequently, municipal planning documents and zoning ordinances do not adequately address virtual restaurants, if at all.  Most municipalities have made distinctions between traditional restaurants (e.g., sit-down, fast food, takeout) with on-site customers and substantial food preparation or production facilities.  Historically, municipalities have designated restaurants as commercial uses permitted in commercial and mixed-use districts.  Conversely, food production and preparation businesses have been historically viewed as industrial or processing uses that are relegated to heavy industrial areas.  Virtual restaurants are neither a traditional restaurant nor an industrial use.

Unlike traditional restaurants, there are reasons why virtual restaurants may not be appropriate in pedestrian-oriented downtowns or urban mixed-use areas.  For example, they are intended to be served by a greater number of pick-up or delivery vehicles and may have later hours of operations.  Although, locating them in heavy industrial areas separated from their customers’ homes and jobs doesn’t make sense either.  Indeed, virtual restaurants may be most appropriate in commercial areas along transportation corridors that are in closer proximity to more homes and other businesses.  In fact, virtual restaurants may be an appropriate type of business in certain shopping malls because aspects of them are comparable to how grocery store and retail operators are modifying underutilized space (discussed last year, HERE).  In the end, locating this or any other new use is an issue to be dealt with based on the specific needs of each municipality.

But don’t be afraid of Ghost Kitchens or Zombie Kitchens because they may be producing your favorite burger, wings or ribs closer to your home than you think.  Keep an eye out for virtual restaurants and please contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group with questions regarding this post or for assistance with any land use issues.

Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance with any land use or development issues or if you have any questions regarding this post.